Mummies are awesome. The very idea of wrapping a dead human being so that their insides and outside don’t decay is bizarre but fun. What’s more, fun is the cinematic horror sub-genre that fantasizes about archaeologists finding them in the Pyramids of Giza or some hidden architectural marvel because in addition to chills and jump scares, it comes with the opportunity to do a lot of drama, comedy, adventure, and thrilling antics. The first recorded entry in this sub-genre is Georges Méliès’s “Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899)”. Then Boris Karloff burst onto the screen with “The Mummy (1932),” and cinema was never the same again. And around 40 Mummy movies later, the last great Mummy movie arrived, i.e., Stephen Sommers’s “The Mummy (1999).” Now, after almost two decades, it looks like Marvel has tried to resurrect this category of entertainment with “Moon Knight (2022).”
Disclaimer: Spoiler-free review of “Moon Knight” is based on the first four episodes of the show that were made available for the press.
“Moon Knight” was created by Jeremy Slater. The first four episodes are directed by Mohamed Diab, Justin Benson, and Aaron Moorhead. They’ve been written by Slater, Michael Kastelein, Beau DeMayo, Peter Cameron, Sabir Pirzada, and Alex Meenehan. The show opens with Arthur Harrow (Ethan Hawke), a kind of cultist who intends to resurrect an Egyptian goddess called Ammit. He’s seen doing a ritual where he drinks water out of a glass, breaks it, puts the shards in his sandals (yes, he wears them) and walks off to stay in a perpetual state of pain. The narrative then shifts to our protagonist, Steven Grant (Oscar Isaac), an employee at a gift shop in London’s National Art Gallery. He lives alone in his apartment, ties himself to one end of his bed to avoid sleepwalking, sprinkles sand around his bed to track his movement, and yet finds himself in precariously violent situations.
From the get-go, it is established that Grant is an unreliable narrator. As you’ve probably seen in the trailers, he has the identity of Marc Spector inside him, who is a globe-trotting mercenary with a special connection to an Egyptian god called Khonshu (F. Murray Abraham). When he blacks out or goes to sleep, Marc takes over Oscar Isaac’s body and goes about his mission. When Grant gets back in control, he is aware of the fact that he has lost time, but there’s nothing tangible to prove it. And Slater, Diab, Benson, and Moorhead play heavily into it to confuse the audience to the point that they start thinking whether anything they’re watching through Grant’s eyes is true. But since those moments lean into the horror-comedy genre instead of the psychological horror genre that “Moon Knight” claims to be, the feeling of confusion and panic is limited to the character and beyond the reach of the audience. You don’t get to step into his shoes and relate to Steven’s paranoia. And then the adventure aspect of the show kicks in.
Marvel Studios has proven that they’ve got a monopoly over the action-adventure genre right now. But not in a good way. Their properties hit all the marks to justify that they are doing action-heavy things while going on an adventure. However, they suffer from a sense of weightlessness and poor visual storytelling. “Moon Knight” is, unfortunately, no different. The production design, set design, art direction, and costume design are fantastic. The special effects, VFX, and prosthetics used to create some of the monsters littered throughout the show are immaculate. Oscar Isaac is visibly doing a lot of his stunts. Hesham Nazih scores the hell out of the show. There are some genuinely glorious and imaginative moments involving Grant and Khonshu. And then it’s all squandered due to the cinematography (DOPs Gregory Middleton and Andrew Droz Palermo) and the editing (Ahmed Hafez and Joan Sobel). Credit where credit’s due; there’s some brilliant use of reflective surfaces. That said, when it comes to action (or even some of the dramatic moments), the show becomes choppy, messy, jarring, and looks (for lack of a better word) cheap.
“Moon Knight” is truly at its best when the characters are scavenging for clues because it allows the show to focus on the intricately made props and sets. The show shines when it delves into Grant, Spector, Khonshu, and Harrow’s different philosophies. Khonshu’s brand of justice means that he can go to any length to punish those who harm the vulnerable. Spector is ready to go as far as Khonshu wants to go. Grant is a pacifist. And Harrow believes that he can judge whether a person is good or bad before they commit a crime, thereby removing the need for a crime to happen. So, it’s interesting to see these ideologies clash. In addition to that, Khonshu’s grand gestures are spectacular. But since the show-makers keep decreasing the intensity of the fights and the weight of the drama by falling back on Marvel’s brand of quippy humor, the whole exercise feels flaky. What’s so wrong with committing to the pangs of horror, the brutality of the action, and the thrill of the adventure that comes with Egyptian lore and Mummies? Reject comedy, embrace genre conventions, Marvel!
Sarah Finn (this time accompanied by Terri Douglas and Krista Husar) has never missed in the casting department, and she continues her wildly successful streak with “Moon Knight.” When he’s not being subjected to the aforementioned Marvel brand of “comedy” and quips, Oscar Isaac is amazing. The way he manages to make Steven Grant and Marc Spector different from each other, sometimes in the same scene, is fascinating to watch (even though you know that it’s common for actors to do so). There’s a moment where he is low-key puppeteered by Khonshu, and the way he enunciates every word and contorts his body is brilliant. F. Murray Abraham as Khonshu is hilarious (that’s an “Inside Llewyn Davis” reunion right there), mysterious, and scary at times. He aptly essays Khonshu’s nonchalant vibe, and his chemistry with Isaac is smooth. Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of Harrow is spine-chilling. He appears totally calm and composed. But like the shards of glass in his sandals, he subtly exposes the simmering violence inside him. May Calamawy is charming and confident as Layla. The rest of the supporting cast do a fine job during their assigned screen time.
In conclusion, “Moon Knight” is fine. It has a banger of a soundtrack, and Hesham Nazih’s score will manage to etch itself into your brain, which is something that every superhero theme should aim to do. As mentioned earlier, the acting is great, which is something that’s expected when you’re casting brilliant actors like Oscar Isaac and Ethan Hawke. The show has moments of brilliance. But for some reason, the showrunners are not interested in letting those moments breathe. There’s a sense of adventure, horror, confusion, and action, which is constantly undercut by Marvel’s unfunny brand of comedy. Thankfully, despite the choppiness of the action and drama, the overall pacing never lags. So, you won’t be bored. However, is that enough? Not being boring? Is the bar really that low? Well, going by Marvel’s mediocre Disney+ shows, it is, and “Moon Knight” is evidently not looking to change that status quo.
“Moon Knight” is a 2022 Action Thriller miniseries created by Jeremy Slate.